It’s okay not to like The Help

Posted on May 28, 2011


No really. If you didn’t enjoy this novel, it’s perfectly okay.

There’s nothing wrong. For whatever reason some readers didn’t bond with this novel, it’s fine.

Just like there’s nothing wrong with the happy-happy joy-joy virus going around the internet from many people who just luvvvvv the book and want to share their experience with others.

Celia Foote gets the squeals as the movie amps up the happiness factor during segregation











Squealing in happiness to see Skeeter, especially with no mature adults AKA older women or blacks in the room to spoil all the fun.











The rapture comes to a screeching halt though, if they somehow manage to collide with the small percent of readers who don’t care for the book (like me).

Some critics of Stockett’s best seller have stated they found the storyline lacking, and the characters flat. Those kind of responses don’t get much reaction. But try and discuss why the characters, both black and white are stereotypical, and a few vocal defenders appear.

I push back, and I don’t often make apologies for it.  And I’ll admit while I don’t post a comment on another blog or message board to praise the novel, I don’t want to bury it either.

Because The Help is an excellent example of a barrier that stops many Americans, black and white from having a meaningful dialogue on race.

Especially since sections of the novel can also be shown to contain old stereotypes of the black culture, stereotypes that are still ingrained in our society, so much so that it can be argued these caricatures may be preferred by some people.

Mammy and child

America prides itself on showing the world how racial harmony is done.

And what better way than to hold up a book that exposes our nation’s longest and most shameful period, during which bigotry outweighed civility. To boldly proclaim “See, this novel became a best seller, and it’s not patting Americans on the back. It’s actually scolding us for our behavior.”

Keeping this theory in mind, I do understand that for a number of readers, there’s no such thing as a stereotypical black character in The Help.

There’s only “admirable” downtrodden black people in the book. Even if flawed in execution, the premise of the novel is considered solid enough to give Kathryn Stockett a pass because, well she at least attempted to write and shed light on a difficult subject. And she’s white so you know, it wasn’t easy. Oh, and at least the book made people aware of what happened back then, but it wasn’t meant to be a history lesson.

Yes, there are poor, oppressed, uneducated black people having a bad time in The Help. But that’s the thing. Why’s it so important now that some people realize how bad those “poor, oppressed, uneducated black people” had it back then?

Especially since many readers don’t get that the fight for freedom and equality wasn’t founded or continued on for well over a century because blacks simply wanted people to see we were “poor, oppressed and uneducated”.

On the contrary, the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality existed during and after slavery, with the south being home to a vast number of traditionally black universities and colleges.

We wanted what whites had. The opportunity to excel. To advance and be publicly noted for it. To have a choice and a voice, especially the right to vote throughout America without Jim Crow laws that were created to impede progress.

But more important, the circumstances and struggles of an oppressed people weren’t highlighted to automatically make all of them “admirable”. So where did the tag of “admirable” even come from for the characters in The Help?

Ah yes, it came from the PR spin on the novel. The author also pushed the notion that one of the most stereotypical characters in the book, Aibileen Clark was “admirable” simply because she winces and keeps silent when insulted.

It’s akin to the “They were poor but happy” cliche that was used far too often in fiction during days long past.

Those of us old enough to remember the roles Sydney Poitier played early in his career can recall that he was bestowed with the tag of “admirability” in several movies.

Unlike Aibileen, at least Sydney was given dialogue without a boatload of “he be” or “she be” and “law”

Even when Sydney was cast in the dreadful Band of Angels which starred Clark Gable and Yvonne De Carlo (playing the tragic mulatto character) he elevated the role with his commanding presence and his enviable diction. There was also something else. Sydney showed some fire in the role, he seethed with anger, and was able to unleash it when a much too amorous suitor attempted to attack Yvonne’s flirtatious character. Take a look at Sydney’s stance in the still from the movie below:

Band of Angels, where Yvonne De Carlo portrayed the mulatto character. Sydney Poitier was also featured as a slave.


Remember too,  this 1959 movie came out before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so a black man behaving this way on screen was unheard of at the time.  

I  suspect the scene where Sydney knocks down the amorous white suitor was edited out for southern audiences, which was a common practice Hollywood censors indulged in during segregation.

African American entertainers could be inserted and deleted from a picture so as not to offend southern moviegoers with their presence on screen.

And much like The Help has black characters who were created not to offend white readers but to make them feel “sorry” for them, I have to say that patronizing a minority culture with condescending dialogue and scenes is just as bad as overt prejudice.

And that’s a big problem in the novel.

Aibileen, Minny and Constantine are full of folksy, racially tinged advice, yet for most of the novel none of these women do anything except go to work, gossip in church and follow Skeeter’s lead.

Skeeter becomes the dreaded “white savior” in the novel, a term that no writer wants put upon their main character, but there’s no getting around it. Aibileen and co are such “know nothing, do nothings” in the book, it takes Skeeter, a young woman (fresh out of her recently desegregated Alma Mater Ole Miss, yet this journalism grad appears clueless about all the brouha surrounding James Meredith) who stumbles upon an idea that gets her labeled as a racial “agitator”.

Skeeter as a Mary Sue, or chosen one is sent up at the end of Chapter One, when she asks Aibileen:

“Do you ever wish you could . . . change things?” (Skeeter, Pg 10)

But Aibileen, so accustomed to fawning and bowing, even believes the youngsters upset over Medgar Evers assassination ain’t built up a callus to it yet. They done had meetings all week over the killing. I hear folks angry, yelling, crying. This the first one I come to since the shooting. (Aibileen,  Pg 207)

At only fifty-three  years of age and in good health, Aibileen acts as if she’s got one foot in the grave. And she floats about her own community narrating what goes on like a disaffected observer, which is stranger yet.

It takes Skeeter to shake Aibileen, Minny, and their fellow “blacker the better” maids as well as the church they all attend from their inertia.

So where’s the novel’s Fannie Lou Hamer?

A lioness for Civil Rights, Mississippi native Fannie Lou Hamer

There isn’t one, though Stockett creates Shirley Boon, a woman who does attempt to fill the position, but who instead becomes a foil for Minny’s crude jokes about the rights movement.  Because even though Jackson, Mississippi was in the eye of the civil rights storm during the time period Stockett sets her novel in, this novel is sorely lacking in characters who realize it.

Stockett never bothered to interview African Americans who could have given her book a much needed broader perspective. That’s why Aibileen, Minny and Constantine read as if they’re out of touch and out of place in the hotly charged and changing atmosphere of Jackson.

When Medgar Evers is murdered, Aibileen cringes and cries, she moans and whines because Stockett never gives her a backbone to speak up (or squeak up, because that’s what the confrontation scenes between her and Gretchen, and Hilly read like) until the novel’s end. But by then it’s too late. So intent on making the reader, especially white readers like Aibileen, the character is the quintessential Uncle Tom mixed with way too much Mammy.

Since her son’s untimely death, Aibileen lives and longs only to serve her white employers children. So much so, that she swears off all men, especially black men (which is a whole ‘nother smear campaign in the novel, and one that the editors should have caught).

While the notion of Aibileen taking exaggerated pride in the children she’s raised may play well with white readers, it practically revulses others. The perception that the only “good” or “admirable” black person is the one who knows their place, which is to serve and brag about the white culture is woven throughout the novel. Stockett even turns the ballsy Minny into a Mammy, having this victim of domestic abuse strike her own daughter (Sugar) for of all things, gossiping about Celia Foote, something Stockett has Minny doing the length of the novel.  

Stockett has Abileen fairly obsessing  and foaming at the mouth over Mae Mobley’s well being, yet Aibileen can’t see the harm Minny’s children experience on a daily basis from their demanding, loud mouth mother (Minny) and their abusive father, who’s again just another stereotype, this one being the black “brute” character.

Far from appearing “admirable” and “regal” as Stockett claimed in her rebuttal to the lawsuit filed against her, Aibileen slouches and draws up whenever berated by her employer Elizabeth Leefolt, Hilly and even Skeeter. Aibileen’s the favorite whipping boy of the novel, almost in a dead heat with Mae Mobley and Kindra when it comes to being vocally called out.

She begs at the appropriate time when she fears Skeeter is displeased with her efforts to convince enough maids to help with their novel. Aibileen is also Skeeter’s devoted spy, all eyes and ears whenever Hilly says something negative that pertains to Miss Skeeter. Aibileen so identifies with the happiness and well being of the white characters she bonds with in the novel, she’s a “throwback” to the days when the house negro strutted about during slavery, believing since they served the master directly, they were an extension of the slave owner.

It’s a peculiar attachment some blacks had, that even Malcolm X focused on. Instead of “I” it’s “We” as in what are “We” going to eat this morning master rather than what will “I” eat this morning. And Stockett saddles her three primary maids with it in either an early stage of the malady (Minny) or a Mammy in complete transformation (Constantine, so willing to adhere to Mississippi’s strict racial norms that she gives up her only child, though white looking blacks kids weren’t uncommon at all. See actress Fredi Washington in Imitation of Life, 1933 in this post:

The movie has attempted to give Aibileen a bit more integrity and grit, but rolling of the eyes whenever a white character leaves the room can’t save this misguided creation:

Aibileen rolls her eyes


Aibileen and Minny covertly checking out people reading the novel (Cue the laugh track)

Like the still from the movie, Aibileen and Minny slink about, ever worrying what the white folks are doing. They exist in the novel and apparently in the movie only to react, but never to initiate anything.
And in truth, they could be edited out for the little they contribute. Because The Help is really Skeeter’s story, not theirs.
 These are older black maids that Stockett contrasts with their willingness to abide in servitude, compared to their upwardly mobile and much younger white employers, who demand that older white women like Hilly’s mom and Charlotte Phelan, Skeeter’s mother get to the back of the bus, because youth will be served. 
To this end Stockett nominates Skeeter to become the local black community’s Pied Piper, casting the spunky but admittedly clueless lass in the role of rights agitator.
In the scenes where Stockett attempts to conjure up what it was like for a black female in the rural south, the crows from Dumbo could have been role models. Because Aibileen and Minny descend into cackling, wise cracking caricatures of old in just about every scene they converse in, and even in their house of worship.

Dancing, wise cracking crows from Disney's classic animated feature Dumbo

If Aibileen isn’t cowering she’s suppressing laughter at something idiotic Minny’s said to her, though Minny is seventeen years younger and could benefit from a mature, wiser woman’s advice. Yes, either woman could have spoken the line the crows sing in Dumbo “I be done seen everything when I see an Elephant fly” as part of their dialogue, because that’s how bad their conversations are at times. From the backwards belief the two share that Aibileen has the power, via God and “black magic” to cast down a venereal disease on a rival (spoilt cootchie scene Pg 23-24), Aibileen and Minny behave like a female version of Amos and Andy.
For examples from the novel of the cringe worthy dialect and dialogue, see this post:
So it falls on Skeeter to get them to realize what was once thought impossible. That they do matter, and they have every right to believe it. And live it.
Never mind that by this time, the train had already left the station. Equality was coming, whether some whites stubbornly held on to the status quo or not. The eyes of the world were upon Jackson, Mississippi as well as the entire United States.
This post is still being developed . . .
Posted in: Blog